Darren Rowse has given me a good excuse to write a post I’ve been meaning to get around to for months. He’s asking bloggers to write up “Top 5” posts as part of a group writing project. So I’m going to write that how to set up a home studio on the cheap post I’ve been meaning to write.
Here are the 5 items that let me quit my full-time job and become a freelance radio producer:
Technically all you need to record sound as a podcaster or radio producers is a cheap device (like a minidisc recorder) with a microphone input and a line output. You can run audio from that line output to the line input on most desktop computers. But not all laptops have line inputs. And more importantly, you can get a lot of signal interference.
The best solution is to find a high quality audio interface. At first, I’d thought about picking up a Digidesign MBox. The Mbox has a pretty good reputation and comes with Pro Tools software for audio editing.
But I already had a copy of Cool Edit, which I’d been using for years so I didn’t need Pro Tools. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend $400 or more on an audio input. Then I found the Alesis Multimix 8USB.
This 8-track mixer includes four decent microphone inputs and 2 stereo line inputs. The left and right channels are counted separately which is why this is considered an 8-track mixer, but if you’re not mixing music, you might think of it more like a 6 track mixer.
Anyway, as the name suggests, the 8USB plugs into your computer via a USB port and sends any audio signals to your PC or Mac (it also works with Linux PC, although I’m not sure that’s an officially supported option). It acts like an external soundcard, allowing you to play audio back through the mixer as well.
The quality of my home studio recordings quadrupled when I picked up this mixer. And it only runs about $150. For about twice the price you can pick up the firewire version, which can send audio from each track to your computer separately. Although you can plug up to 8 audio sources into the USB version, the sound will be mixed down to 2-track stereo on your PC.
As it turns out, having a decent mixer isn’t much good if you don’t have a good microphone. One of the first items I’d purchased as a freelancer was an Electro-Voice RE-50 dynamic microphone for recording interviews in the field. It’s a workhorse of a microphone with good shock-mounting to prevent handling noise. But it’s not really a great studio mic.
A friend suggested the AKG Perception 100. It’s a studio-style condenser microphone. Generally condenser mics sound much better than dynamic mics in the same price range. For under $100, the Perception 100 has a nice full sound that rivals the $400 EV RE-20 I’d used at the radio station.
The only problem with condenser microphones is that they require phantom power, so you need to make sure you have a powered mixer or digital audio recorder if you want to use them on the go. But in my studio, the Perception 100 works great for voicing stories or recording telephone or Skype interviews.
3. Zoom H4 Handy Recorder
For $250, the Zoom H-4 is a steal. It’s cheaper than most of the other flash-based digital recorders I’ve tried and sounds better. You can record more than 3 hours of WAV audio on a single 2GB SD card or far more than that if you’re satisfied with MP3 compression.
The only downsides are that you tend to get a little handling noise if you’re using the built-in microphones and I haven’t found any external microphone that sounds quite as good as the internal stereo mics.
4. iRiver IFP-795 MP3 player/recorder
About the time I quit my day job I became a paranoid journalist. If my equipment fails, I can’t do my job. And if I can’t do my job, I don’t get paid. There’s no large institution to eat my costs. Not that I’ve let equipment problems stop me from getting any stories in the past, but paranoia isn’t based on reality, is it?
So I picked up a cheap MP3 recorder on eBay. I went with the discontinued iRiver IFP-795 because it gets rave reviews from podcasters, and because I could get one for under $30 on eBay.
The IFP 790/890 series includes a line/mic input. Switching between line and mic inputs takes quite a few button presses, but it’s possible. I was hoping I could use the recorder as a backup in case my Zoom or other primary recorder broke down in the field. No such luck. My RE-50 microphone sounds pretty bad with the iRiver IFP-795, so I keep an old minidisc recorder in my bag in case the Zoom H-4 breaks.
But the iRiver works perfectly as backup recorder. Here’s what I do:
- Set it to record from the line input
- Run a mini cable from the line out on my Zoom H-4 to the line input on the iRiver
Now I can make two recordings of every interview. One in WAV audio on the Zoom, and another in MP3 on the iRiver
My last item isn’t a piece of hardware, but rather software that’s saved my neck. I picked up a cheap telephone interface from Radio Shack to record telephone interviews from home. I knew the quality wouldn’t be great for $15, but I wasn’t prepared to shell out $500 for a JK Audio Broadcast Host.
Well, it turns out the wiring in my apartment was funny and there was no way to avoid getting a loud buzzing noise on the line. Verizon sent somebody to fix the problem, and they say the identified the source of the noise and corrected it, but I beg to differ.
So I bought some SkypeOut time and registered a SkypeIn phone number and cancelled my land line. Now I conduct all of my telephone interviews over Skype. For the most part if someone needs to reach me, I give them my cellphone number. Thats’ what’s printed on my business cards. But when I’m requesting or conducting interviews, I give out my SkypeIn number.
The connection from my broadband-connected PC to a telephone line sounds about as good as a decent cellphone connection, and the recordings sound as good as the conversations, which I can’t say about recordings I made using audio interfaces on traditional telephone lines.
I’ve filed a number of stories for national news networks using sound recorded over Skype and nobody’s complained yet. Occasionally you will get an audio glitch, but all you have to do is tell the person you’re interviewing that you had a technical issue, could they just repeat what they’d last said? People are used to cellphone calls dropping out, so this shouldn’t be an issue.
There you go, for about $600, you can put together a perfectly serviceable home studio. That’s not counting the PC, headphones and speakers, but I’m assuming you’ve already got those. I also have a mic stand, and an array of cables that I used for recording press conferences and other events, but I find I don’t cover those sort of breaking news events as often as I did when I was a station-based reporter.